Giving More Than Thanks : Many Celebrate by Serving Meals for Needy or Walking for Charity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before sitting down to a big meal and settling in for the day, hundreds of Ventura County residents began their Thanksgiving celebrations Thursday walking to raise money for charity or rising at dawn to cook for the homeless and the needy.

Churches and charitable organizations across Ventura County served up hundreds of traditional Thanksgiving meals. In Simi Valley, Grace Brethren Church offered turkey and all the trimmings to more than 100 homeless residents, while 250 needy residents ate Thanksgiving dinner at the Ventura County Rescue Mission.

In Camarillo, where the American Heart Assn. held its first annual Turkey Trot, parents, children and grandparents enjoyed the cool morning breeze and sunny skies as they walked one mile or ran a 5K race to raise money.

"This was the perfect way to start the holiday season," said Keena Carstensen of Thousand Oaks, the first woman runner to arrive at the finish line. "It has been just old-fashioned fun for our family. We woke up together, exercised together and we plan to go home and cook together."

The event, which raised more than $3,000 for the local chapter of the American Heart Assn., began at 8 a.m. with the one-mile family walk and ended at 10 a.m. when the first three runners to reach the finish line were each given a 10-pound frozen turkey.

Participants in the event at Camarillo's Constitution Park paid $12 to enter the walk and $15 for the race, and received Turkey Trot T-shirts. In addition, the first 200 children received "turkey Pog" game pieces, and everyone was served orange juice and bagels.

"We are exercising so we can eat as much as we want later," said Newbury Park resident Michael Smith as he walked with his wife and daughter. "This is a wonderful way to give thanks for our health and ability to walk."

After the half-hour walk, some parents left their children to play on the park's green lawns and ventured into the race, while others took their youngsters with them.

"This is routine for me," said Dennis Dempsey of Camarillo, who ran the 3.1-mile course in about 23 minutes while pushing his two toddlers in a three-wheel stroller. "I work long hours and don't get to spend much time with my children, so I run with them every morning."

Michael Morrissette, the coordinator of the event, said the association plans to hold a similar event next year.

"Our goal is to promote good health habits, and I don't think we could have chosen a better day than Thanksgiving Day," Morrissette said. "It's fun to enjoy all that great turkey and mashed potatoes, but we must enjoy it with care and consciousness about our health. I think a lot of the people who are here today will watch how they cook their dinner and watch how much they eat."

While some residents were putting on their running shorts and shoes, others were greeting the day by cooking for the homeless.

Michael and Rene Beauchamp, both Salvation Army volunteers, were up at 5:30 a.m. cooking green beans, stuffing and turkey. By 11 a.m., the Beauchamps joined about 18 other volunteers who served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner to more than 200 needy residents at the Salvation Army in downtown Ventura.

"The food is delicious," said Maria Consillio of Ventura, who was eating dinner with her husband and her two children. "We're grateful for the meal. We could not afford to have it at home."

While they enjoyed their meals, a group of students from Ventura's Blanche Reynolds School entertained the guests by singing holiday songs.

"It's fun to be here and know that we are doing something good for the homeless," said 9-year-old Nicole Buckner, one of the singers.

Besides singing, the students cooked the mashed potatoes that were served--with the help of their teachers.

At the Dominion Christian Center in Thousand Oaks, 44-year-old Douglas Fog of Thousand Oaks said he was lucky to be able to have Thanksgiving dinner twice. Half an hour after he had a plate filled with homemade turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, beans, and cranberry sauce, Fog returned for seconds.

"The food is so delicious and the people in the church are so generous that I can't help but eat as much as I can," said Fog, who is homeless.

About 15 church members had cooked 125 pounds of turkey and made pies to serve the homeless.

"It's wonderful that church people like these take time to cook for people like me," said 63-year-old Richard Jerris, who lives inside a van. "At least there is somebody out there doing something for the homeless and jobless."

Like many others, Jerris said that eating at the church was the only Thanksgiving dinner he was going to have.

"I'm happy with this," Jerris said as he sat down to it. "I have food to eat, what else could I ask for?"

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